RWC2015 Semi-Final Preview: Australia vs. Argentina

The second of the all Southern Hemisphere semi-finals is set to kick off early tomorrow morning and promises to be a tough match.

Australia will be looking to prove they deserve their spot, and Argentina will play like they have nothing to lose. We are in for one hell of a fight.

The pool of death turned out to be a misnomer – Australia beat one of the worst English World Cup squads ever assembled, and a Welsh team that lacked key players. Their performance last week against Scotland highlighted their inconsistency and lack of composure under pressure.

Craig Joubert notwithstanding, for a team that many picked to win the tournament, the Aussies are lucky to have made it this far in the competition.

In contrast, the Pumas are killing it. Despite being issued their quarter final ticket as soon as the country names for Pool C were pulled out of the hat, their performances against New Zealand and Ireland show that Argentina are a solid, attacking team that live by the adage that the best defence is a good offense.

Australia will go into the game as favourites, having only lost to Argentina once in the past 18 years. But they have every reason to be worried. Argentina’s innovative attacking play has seen them wrack up 222 points and 26 tries so far in this tournament – second only to New Zealand. They outclassed Ireland and arguably should have beaten the All Blacks. If the Aussies think that they can squeak by with the form that they showed against Scotland, then they have another thing coming.

Both sides will be fielding their best teams. Australia will be thankful that Israel Folau and David Pocock are fit enough to start. The pair were absent from the near miss against Scotland due to injuries obtained in their last pool match with Wales.

Pocock’s return will be a welcome boost to the team. The number 8 has dominated the breakdown in pool matches and is currently leading the tournament in turnovers. Argentina will need to work hard to restrict his influence on the game. Similarly, the inclusion of Folau will make Australia incredibly dangerous under the high ball. Midfield bombs have been used as a tactic frequently this World Cup and will no doubt play a part in the game tomorrow.

Unsurprisingly, Daniel Hourcade’s side will remain almost unchanged from the line-up that smashed Ireland. The only addition will be Marcelo Bosch at outside centre, who missed the quarter final after being cited for a dangerous tackle in the game against Namibia.

Two key players to watch for Argentina are fly half Nicolas Sanchez and inside centre Juan Martin Hernandez. Their passing in the midfield in the game against Ireland were responsible for setting up two of the tries, and Ireland struggled throughout the match to keep them contained.

The scrum matchup will be a very interesting prospect. A lot has already been discussed in the media about Mario Ledesma – former Argentine hooker and current Australian forwards coach – and his transformation of the Australian scrum. However the Aussie set piece showed weakness against Scotland, something that they won’t be able to get away with when engaged with one of the world’s best looseheads, Marcos Ayerza, and the rest of the Argentinian pack.

Australia will have to remain composed if they want to win. Their squad has the experience required, they have their best men on the field – realistically they should be able to get the job done. Hopefully they have been able to distance themselves from the close call against Scotland and the circus that has surrounded the controversial nature of the win.

Off the back of smashing Ireland – the Pumas have got to rate themselves. And the beauty of being the relatively new lads at the southern hemisphere rugby big boys table means they are not burdened by the pressure of expectation. They have gotten as far as they ever have, and it just takes one more win to reach the final.

Both teams will have to keep their cool, as all eyes will be on the ref to enforce as strictly as possible to make sure the right team makes it into the final. This might be especially difficult for Argentina, who have always been known for being a little bit scrappy. It would be sad if the outcome is decided by yellow cards rather than tries.

I predict that Australia will win by ten points but it will be a hard fought game punctuated by penalties. Just like the Cricket & Netball World Cups, it will be an Aussie vs. Kiwi final (with hopefully a different outcome than the other two tournaments).

As a bit of a side note, Argentina’s performance at this World Cup should serve as evidence to show that the way to turn good minnow teams into Championship contenders is to end their isolation and get them playing in regular tournaments against the best teams in the world.

In the decade from 2000 to 2010, the Pumas matched up against New Zealand only four times, now with their inclusion in The Rugby Championship, they get the chance to play against all of the titans of southern hemisphere rugby at least twice a year. There is little doubt that that the extra time playing top tier rugby has made a huge difference.

Given that they are a very young side, the future looks bright for Argentinian rugby and they will be a force to be reckoned with in another four years.

By Elisa Harris

RWC2015: Ireland – Three Things You Need to Know

Ireland is perhaps one of the most dynamic teams at this years Rugby World Cup.

If you asked many a casual fan where they see Ireland, they probably wouldn’t go so far as placing them in the quarterfinal and no further.

However, the keen rugby heads out there will know that Ireland has all the makings of going all the way to the final.

Coming off back-to-back wins in the Six Nations, both this year and last, and up until a month ago, sitting at no. 2 in the World Rugby Rankings, there is no doubt that Ireland are a favoured team heading into RWC 2015.

Lets not forget their win over Australia in pool play in 2011, or their near-win over the All Blacks in 2012, losing only by a last minute drop goal.

They have the ability, the drive and the talent to go very far in this World Cup, and here is three things you need to know about them.

1. Quarter Final Curse

This looks to be the year that Ireland breaks their quarter-final curse – that is if they can beat France in pool play, to avoid the All Blacks.

The Irish have made it to the quarters in every tournament except 2007, where they were up against hosts France, and Argentina in the rather softly named “Pool of Death”, and in 1999, after being a victim of the tournament’s quarter-final playoffs structure.

Now, if they can reach the semi-finals, anything is possible.

Setting aside the recent lacklustre performance in the warm-up games, Ireland have a solid track record in tournaments (with back to back 6 nations wins) and tours.

This is definitely the year that they will break the quarter final curse.

2. The Ghost of Brian O’Driscoll

This is the first World Cup since 1999 that won’t feature legend of Irish Rugby Brian O’Driscoll and it is easy to assume that the team will feel the loss of their stalwart leader in the high pressure World Cup environment.

But the reality is, Ireland has improved since his departure, and the catalyst for that has been Coach Joe Schmidt.

Post O’Driscoll, the lads have retained the 6 Nations championship, beaten Australia and South Africa, and only marginally lost to New Zealand.

Schmidt’s strength is his ability to put together a team that highlights weaknesses in the opposition.

They may not have an awe inspiring superstar on the field, but Ireland is arguably a more cohesive team now than they have ever been.

Paul O’Connell has picked up the reigns, but the role of Captain is not as meaty as it used to be now that the team is being decisively lead from the top.

The reliance on the coach does come at a price; when it comes down to it Schmidt is restricted to the coaching box while all the real work is taking place. If a side can’t find their on-field direction without taking constant orders from their coach, then rugby will end up like soccer, and it’ll be Schmidt’s head at the end of the tournament if the Irish fail to perform.

3. The luck of the Irish

You certainly cannot write a review of the Irish without mentioning this…

They managed to land in the weakest pool of the tournament – avoiding all the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses, and their only real competition is France.

The World Cup format requires teams to play several high level games in a short period of time, a cakewalk during pool play means a team will be fresher, and less likely to be riddled with injury by the time they need to break out the big guns in the knockout stages.

The resent Irish performance against France has been good – with the Irish remaining unbeaten since 2013 (although they only matched up a couple of times).

France can be unpredictable early in the tournament and both teams will be under an inordinate amount of pressure to win the pool to avoid the tournament favorites, New Zealand in the quarter finals.

Prediction

Many of the experts have picked it, and with good reason.

Ireland will win their pool, cruise past Argentina in the quarter finals, and scrape past Australia in the semis only to spectacularly fall against New Zealand in the finals.

By Elisa Harris

All Blacks Need to Forget the Drop Goal

Don’t let the handful amount of times it’s worked sway you – the drop goal has no real place in the All Black arsenal.

Before every World Cup, as if on cue, the rugby world starts talking about whether the All Blacks will finally embrace the drop goal. And this year is no different.

Justin Marshall kicked off the four yearly discussions with an article in the New Zealand Herald early this month, and no doubt the subject will become fodder for sports radio as the drop goal gets a bit of exercise in pool matches.

Its proponents will be quick to remind you how a drop goal could have saved New Zealand in the 20-18 quarter final loss to France in 2007 or of the extra time kick by Joel Stransky’s that ended the All Blacks dreams in the 1995 final against South Africa.

But realistically there is a reason why drop goals are over emphasised in World Cup victories and losses – they are an act of desperation.

Something that happens when you’re two points down in a must-win situation, up against an impenetrable defence, and there is 3 minutes left on the clock.

At any other time, an unsuccessful droppie results in an instantaneous removal of any pressure the offense has managed to build. It becomes a tacit acknowledgement that the team doesn’t believe they have the capability to break through the defensive line. The other team is basically off the hook.

Keeping the pressure on creates more opportunities for penalties (especially inside the 22) or even cards, which are more than likely, given how bad goal-line discipline is in the modern game.

And there is always a chance that the defence will break and a try will be scored. Pressure = points.

So instead of debating how ready the All Blacks are to break out the drop goal, maybe we should be asking: what happened to the chip and chase?

Sure it is risky, but it fills much the same purpose as a drop goal without taking the pressure off.

The high bomb used to be common amongst our outside backs – the likes of Cullen and Rokocoko. Now it’s probably only something you’d see from Conrad Smith, and not all that often.

It also fits in better with the New Zealand style of rugby and given how flat modern rush defence is, it is arguably a far more relevant and useful skill for the close games.

On the eve of the Rugby World Cup however – these are all moot points.

The All Blacks coaching staff have conceded that they have been working on drop goals behind the scenes (naturally they should be) but realistically we should expect to see the solid, safe rugby that has seen us through years and years of being the most successful team on the planet.

That is if we don’t choke.

By Elisa Harris

RWC2015: Uruguay – Three Things You Need to Know

Uruguay: nestled between Argentina, who are snapping at the heels of the big guns in international rugby, and Brazil, a country pre-occupied with football.

This country beat out Russia to claim the final spot at this year’s Rugby World Cup, and plan to make the most of their opportunity to play against the best in the world.

1. Not The Worst

This is Uruguay’s third appearance in a world cup, and despite being a minnow of the minnows, they have won at least one game in the pool stages of each tournament.

They placed 13th after beating Spain in 1999 and 16th after a well-deserved win against Georgia in 2003. Look out Fiji, you might be next.

The are ranked 19th in the world ahead of Namibia, so they’re not quite the worst team there…

2. They are ‘Alive’

Too soon? Unfortunately Uruguayan Rugby is best known for being involved in the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 back in 1972, and subsequent films and books about the event.

If you’ve forgotten, it’s the plane crash where the survivors ate the dead passengers to stay alive.

At Uruguay’s first World Cup appearance in 1999, the squad were pestered by the international media about the incident, who were desperate to find some relevance for a largely unknown rugby nation.

Sadly, it is likely the Uruguayan team will be eaten alive having drawn the very short straw in the ‘Pool of Death.’

3. The Right Attitude

Being matched up against Australia, England, and Wales in Pool A isn’t considered a negative by the team or their coaching staff.

Coach Pablo Lemoine stated in a recent interview: “we are playing three of the top five in the world and for that reason for us it is not the group of death, it is the group of hope.”

Well we all knew South Americans were patriotic but this one takes the cake. Has Lemoine been watching Mighty Ducks or something? The Group of Hope; as if each team in that pool is fighting for their civil rights as a country. As if Wales is playing for the injured, England for colonisation, and Australia for the fans of cricket. Ahh the power of rugby!

He was somewhat more realistic with his other statements though stating: “every group at the Rugby World Cup would be difficult for us. But to play against England, Australia and Wales in one month – it will probably never happen again for us.”

Prediction

Its called the Pool of Death for a reason. They will die. Nay, they will be slaughtered. Their world ranking of 19 will shine true as they finish 19th in the tournament (only on points differential). The only way we can see them getting a win is if Fiji spends a night out on the lash and turns up with 11 men.

By Elisa Harris

Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride

You don’t have to be a fortune teller to predict that Scott Dixon will once again miss out on the Supreme Award at the Halbergs for 2015.

Sure, he has now equalled Dario Franchitti’s record of four IndyCar championship wins, won more individual races than any other driver since 1996, and is now arguably the best driver in IndyCar’s new format.

Unfortunately, Dixon was silly enough to achieve all of this in a Rugby World Cup year – so barring some catastrophe, the award already has ‘Sir Richie McCaw’ etched onto it.

Not that Richie doesn’t deserve the honour, as well as a knighthood and hopefully free physiotherapy for life – it’s a small consolation for the man who has carried the weight of an entire nation on his back for the better part of a decade.

But in the case of New Zealand’s top sporting top award celebrating the success of our athletes on the world stage, Dixon is always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

There are two main reasons for this, the first is that IndyCar suffers from having an undeserved reputation of being as easy as turning the steering wheel left to go around in circles a few hundred times. In reality, the sport requires insane levels of hand eye co-ordination, mental and physical strength, and the race itself has multiple changes in whose leading, and complex strategies around tire and fuel management.

IndyCar also includes street circuits, which are usually dominated by Dixon.

In contrast, Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix – considered the crown jewel of motorsport circuits – is largely a procession where in all but rare instances; the winner is decided by who qualifies first rather than what happens in the actual race.

IndyCar has to battle against some pretty bad PR which has resulted in Dixon’s recent victory occupying the front page of NZHerald.co.nz for about 15 minutes before inevitably being replaced by an article about a Bachelor or Dancing with the Stars contestant.

The second is the nature of the Halberg awards, its judging panel and the criteria used to judge the athletes. If you weren’t already aware of the criteria, here it is:

1. Regarding the achievement:

  • a. was it in that sport’s ‘pinnacle event’ (eg Olympics, Paralympics, Football World Cup)
  • b. was it a world record, or world ranking or recognition (eg ‘World Player of the Year’).
  • c. the quality of the field / competition.

2. The global nature of the sport.

And the judging panel is made up of 28 independent voters which are currently made up of 10 journalists, 4 olympians, 2 cricket, 2 rugby, 2 cycling, and one from netball, league, Paralympian, softball, motorsport, golf and field hockey.

Dixon met all of the criteria in 2003, 2008, 2013 and now in 2015. His best year was probably 2008 when he won the Indy 500 however he had to settle for Sportsman of the Year because it was an Olympic year and he was up against Valarie Adams.

His best shot at the top spot would have been in 2013 but the judging committee pre-emptively jumped on the Lydia Ko bandwagon and she received the Supreme Award.

Dixon was robbed that year. This isn’t suggesting that Ko isn’t a deserving athlete and she has certainly done New Zealand proud on the world stage, but back in 2013 she had only just turned pro at the end of the year and at that stage had only won 2 professional events.

Very little of her events were even broadcast on New Zealand television, so unless the judging panel went out of their way to stream the events then (aside from highlights packages) they would have never actually seen her play. It is more like she received the award on potential and the hype surrounding her age.

So despite being a four time world champion in a sport that is watched by millions of people around the world, Dixon will miss out again.

It is the same fate suffered by Sophie Pascoe and all of the other athletes that are dominating in sports that are less popular in New Zealand than they are in the rest of the world.

Dixon will just have to hope that 5th times the charm.

By Elisa Harris